London to Mongolia - 5 weeks, 2 men, 1 car... NO CHANCE!
This is how long we think it will take us to drive our 20 year old Fiat 126, 10,000 miles across 12 countries. (For a closer look at this beautiful piece of metallic ass check out Dilly on our "Meet the team" page.)
We can't really remember whose bright idea this trip was but we both agreed that neither of us could allow the other to go alone.
Apart from the "minor" issue that neither of us knows anything about cars, here are just some of our other problems. Our Englis isn't the best, our French is worse and the last time we were in Kazakhstan we accidentally told a local policeman we would like to buy his daughter. To make matters worse Michael has severe claustrophobia and Odhran has acute motion sickness.
Ok, so we've exaggerated some of our problems but this trip would be a challenge for normal people let alone us...
Kazakhstan: The Final Frontier...
These are the voyages of Close but no Bataar. Our ongoing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life-forms and new civilizations; to boldly go where no team has gone before.
Ok, so we don't have ourselves down as the next Columbus or Shackleton but Kazakhstan really has taken this trip to a whole different level. We got a bit carried away with the last blog and by the time we had finished it was too late to set off so we decided to stay in Atyrau another night and head off early the next morning. True to form we had failed to recognise how much easier it is to navigate your way across a country the size of Europe when you have a map. This was exacerbated by the fact that the signs are not only in a different language but use a completely different alphabet.
Softened by the relative comfort of the previous 36 hours we were soon re-acquanited with those familiar feelings of dread and uncertainlty. We stopped off at a garage to re-tyre a wheel and to our suprise and delight we bumped into the Pimp from 2 nights before. We explained our chronic inability to get out of the city and he asked if we wanted to follow him to the road we needed. We were embarrassed to accept his offer but he told us that we could be driving around Atyrau for the rest of the day without his help. Reluctantly we followed the good samaritan/pimp for 20 minutes until he pulled into a supermarket carpark and pointed the way forward. This wasn't before he warned us of how bad the road ahead was and suggested an alternative route... In hindsight perhaps we should have heeded his advice!
For 50 miles we ploughed ahead berating the over-cautious pimp for his uneccessary warning. The road seemed fine and as we approached the town of Magot we were convinced we could make it to Aktobe, 600 kilmetres away, in the next 24 hours. We're sure you have realised by now that as soon as we make an ill informed assumption something inevitably goes wrong and this was no exception! We drove around Magot for the best part of an hour but could not find where the road to Aktobe continued. Several times we were directed towards the gas refinary that lay at the northern tip of the town but the road seemed to finish at the adjacent gas fields. The thought fleetingly crossed our minds that perhaps we needed to drive through the gas field to get to Aktobe but within 100 metres of drifting uncontrollably across the tracks in the sand we concluded that idea was ludicrous. Unfortunately for us and for Dilly the road to Aktobe did indeed continue on the other side of the gas field and so we embarked on a 20 mile drive across what can only be described as a series of dirt tracks across sand dunes in a car inequipped to deal with the rigours of what we now consider to be the tarmaced oasis that is Birmingham!
We drove around the gas field for what seemed like an eternity beaching the car on thick sand on more than one occasion finding ourselves frantically shovelling sand from under the car as night fell, eventually requiring a tow from a kind Kazakh family just as we thought all hope was lost. Once we finally emerged from the purgatory that was Magot we decided to camp up for the night and counted our blessings for emerging (relatively) unscathed.
Progress was slow the next day as we traversed the potholes that lay in front of us. It is hard to describe just how bad this road was but to give you an idea other motorists had decided in favour of driving through the dusty fields on either side rather than take their chances with the suspect Kazakh infrastructure. That morning we covered a mere 40 or 50 miles in 3 hours struggling to keep going. Despite our best efforts disaster has never been far from our doorstep. The car soon started to cough and splutter but we equated this to the on-going problems we had with the distributer condenser coming loose. We were loosing power by this time and so decided to pull to the side of the road to survey the engine. As we opened up the engine cover, which had itself been shook loose from it's hinges, we saw that the engine was covered in sand. We were suprised and concerned to find that the distributor seemed to be in good order meaning that something else might be wrong with the car. As we sat at the roadside confused, bemused and uncertain what to do, the first car to pass us by in an hour stopped to see if he could he help. We gestured that we thought that there must be something wrong with the distributor and he took out his tool kit, looking like he knew exactly what he was doing. He pulled out the distributor tightened some screws and adjusted a wire that had come loose. He reattached the distributor and told us to try the engine. We held our breath and hoped that he had fixed the problem but alas we were not that lucky! He offered to tow us to the next town and we gladly accepted. Unfortunately the roads were putting serious pressure on the tow rope and after 5 kilometres or so the rope pulled the towing eye clean off the front of our car. We managed to re-attach the tow rope to the chassi of the car but our breaks were the next thing to give out making the journey even more treacherous. We decided to let the Kazakh man continue on his way rather than inflicting our continuing misfortune on anyone else.
We soon began to berate this decision as the blistering sun rose in the sky. The temperature was nearing 50 degrees celcius and we were down to our last bottle of water. The nearest town was at least 30 kilometres away in either direction and we couldn't remember the last time another car had passed us by.
With vultures circling overhead and short on options we had no choice but to return to the engine compartment and fix the car ourselves. Scratching our heads, we were clean out of ideas. Preparing for the worst and considering abandoning the flagging car on the side of the potted Kazakh highway as if by divine intervention we were interupted for the second time in our journey by the sound of a car horn. We looked around in anticipation and to our absolute surprise and relief it was another rally team. Travelling in the opposite direction on one of the parallel dirt tracks and confused about the direction our static steed was facing, Theo and Luke pulled up in a great dust cloud to offer their assistance. After we explained our predicament, the lads from Winchester gave the car a 'once over' and narrowed our symptoms down to an issue with the air filter explaining the importance of regularly cleaning it in the desert-like road conditions. This minor problem could be fixed by simply cleaning the air filter. Unfortunately the friendly Kazakh who had tried to help had in fact worsened our problems. When he removed the distributor he managed to knock out our timing and so it seemed our run of bad luck was set to continue.
The lads offered to tow us to the next decent sized town where hopefully we could find a mechanic who could re-set our timing. As the light began to fade we pulled into a Kazakh 'service station' to see if we could eat for the first time in nearly 24 hours. We decided to stick to the 2 course menu that evening. Our starter was a perfectly seasoned bowl of mutton soup followed by a delicious platter of horse and onions! We wolfed it down gratefully and set up camp for the night. We got stuck into a couple of bottles of vodka we had bought in Russia and all four us fell asleep under the clear night sky.
The journey the next morning was interesting to say the least. The tow rope had broken so many times that it was now down to a mere 4 feet long. Being towed at speeds of 70 mph on the worst roads imaginable gave us 0.375 seconds to react to Luke and Theo's braking which was unpredicatable at best. This continued for 2 hours until we reached the next 'service station' where we had breakfast. Breakfast involved half a swiss roll, a bottle of fanta and what Odhran described as a liver doughnut. As far as we can decipher this consisted of minced liver incased in some kind of sweet pastry that passes for a Kazakh delicasy and do you know what? At that moment it tasted pretty damn good!
Eventually we made it to the town of Shubar-Kuduk and found a garage to look at the car. Our hearts sank as the mechanic almost instantly gestured that Dilly was beyond repair. As the mechanic tended to a hole in the exhaust that Theo and Luke had picked up the previous day we set about fixing the problem ourselves, stubbornly refusing that our journey would end here.
At this point we probably need to mention that there has been a 4th team member who has had as much, if not more, of a role to play in the success of the trip than anyone else. Our friend Bert Moriarty has been on call 25 hours a day, 8 days a week for any mechanical advice we have needed. To the members of Close but no Bataar Bert is the fourth emergency service! Bert talked us through how we could re-set the timing but even under his expert supervision it was highly unlikely we would succeed without the correct equipment. Whether it was by chance or sheer perseverance we somehow managed to re-set the timing. It took both of us, Bert, Theo and Luke over 4 hours to do it but when we finally got Dilly going it was worth every oil drenched minute.
We drove out of that garage feeling invincible, excited about driving to Almaty with our new found friends...
Asalamu alaykim from Kazakhstan!
This should have gone up on the 13th August.
We know the blogs seem to be getting longer and longer so we're gonna try and keep this one as short as possible...
Our cultural learnings have continued over the past 3 days and have led us to meet a shaman, a pimp and more corrupt coppers than you could shake a stick at. The car continues to disintegrate around us and the chance of driving our beloved Dilly through Mongolia seems to be disappearing quicker than the tarmaced roads beneath us.
Before we had even left the city limits of Dontesk we were kindly given another lesson on highway safety by a 'friendly' Ukranian policeman. Odhran was left by the roadside while Michael was drove to a local bank and asked to empty the contents of his current account. Threatened with having his passport confiscated and being thrown into jail, Michael decided that he was far too pretty to to end up in the Ukranian prison system and so eventually managed to agree on a fine of about £30.
To add insult to serious financial injury as we left the Ukraine one of the border guard took a shine to one of our brand new jerry cans and so informed us that he was going to swap it for what can only be described as a cold war relic!! It now sits on our roof rack quietly mocking our muted plea to hold onto our one remaining decent jerry can. It was however a price worth paying for a speedy border crossing and we headed into Russia looking forward to a fresh start. Alas, our feelings of optimism were short lived. A shady Russian guy called Mikael offered to help us and sent us with his 'fixer' to go through the vigorous process of Russian immigration control. Too tired to question his motives we were glad of his help. All seemed to be going smoothly until we reached the final checkpoint where we we discreetly informed that we were required to pay a $20 "customs tax." Again we decided that if it got us through to the other side we didn't much care and so we handed over the $20 under no illusion that our luck would change in Russia.
We spent that night asleep in the car and hoped to reach Kazakhstan that day. We soon realised this was foolishly optimistic! Dilly had been remarkably quiet for a couple of days but she soon made us aware that she did not intend to be a silent partner in this adventure. 2 wires from the alternator kept coming loose causing the battery to run flat. After a couple of jump starts from bemused Russian strangers we struggled desperately to find a way to keep the wires in place. Whether it was by luck or judgement we managed to fix the problem after a couple of hours on the dusty Russian roadside.
That night was spent sleeping in Dilly on the forecourt of a petrol station and the next day we woke early and drove hard to make up for the time we had lost fiddling under Dilly's skirt. All was well until we approached a police check point and it was here we witnessed the best and worst of Russian hospitaility. We must admit we are a little out of touch with the Russian highway code so you will forgive us for making the odd mistake when it comes to reading road markings and signs. However, the Russian copper didn't sympathise and it wasn't long before he was looking for some kind of recompense for the serious ill we had caused him!?! We explained that we had no money and so he insisted that we find him a 'present' from the UK, specifically a miniature statue of Big Ben!?! Having forgotten to pack our miniature Big Ben we thumbed nervously through the car trying to find something that might interest this latest Russian crook! He dug around looking for something that interested him and in the process somehow managed to push our windscreen through!! Holding back the urge to take his kalashnikov off him and blow his brains out we tried hard to find his 'present.' Turning his nose up at Michael's cherry coloured loafers and unimpressed by Odhran's sunglasses we eventually agreed that he could have our first aid kit.
Unable to continue without our windscreen secured in place and worried that we had no petrol or rubles to even buy it with we asked around to find a place to get it fixed. Luckily another Russain policeman who spoke English took us under his wing and walked us to a local garage where the mechanic was only too glad to assist. Relieved to have the problem sorted we thanked the mechanic by giving him one of the bottles of vodka we had bought that day. The copper even offered to change some american dollars into rubles for us even if the exchange rate may not have been that generous!
Onwards to Kazakhstan but not before our encounter with the shaman! The heat has become unbearable during the last few days and yesterday we were informed by a Kazakh border guard that the temperature was approaching 50 degrees celsius. As we drove through the afternoon sun we were both ridiculously thirsty and so pulled into a roadside shack to buy some water. Enter Vasily the Reiki healer who offered to heal Michael's 'serious illness' for the fee of $100!! Rushed for time and low on money we just couldn't take up Vasily's kind offer so we headed back to the car. We were so dehydrated that we polished off the water we had bought by the time we got back to the car and so Michael quickly headed back to the shack to grab another couple of bottles. Vasily ushered Michael to lie down on his table and his wife explained in broken English that Vasily still wanted to treat him. The next hour and a half felt like an outer body experience as Vasily performed a Reiki 'operation' to cure Michael's numerous ailments. The operation was a non-invasive surgery and we are pleased to announce that the operation was a complete success and Michael has suffered no serious post op complications. To make the experience all the more bizaar, Vasily conducted the entire operation whilst chain smoking cigarettes and watching football on his 42 inch plasma tv!
We powered through Russia until nightfall and pulled into a petrol station for yet another uncomfortable night in the car. We were rudly woke by the sound of a car horn and as we jumped out of 'bed' to see what all the fuss was about it dawned on us that it was another Mongol Rally car. After 18 days of isolation, convinced that we would never see another Rally team we were absolutely delighted. Team Kingdom Crusaders were 4 lads from County Kerry in Ireland and we spent an hour or so recounting stories from the past 3 weeks. We decided to drive in convoy that day and headed for the Kazakh border with our new driving companions!
Passage from Russia to Kazakhstan was suprisingly easy and we headed towards Atyrau where both teams were desperate to find a hotel to shower for the first time in days. As we drove around the city trying to find a place to stay we got chatting to some lads who spoke quite good english. They offered to help us find a bed. We eventually found somewhere to stay and the lads drove Michael to a cash machine to stock up on local currency. We had a much welcomed (and much needed) shower and headed down to the bar for a few beers with The Kingdom Crusaders and our new Kazakh friends. We finished up at about 3 or 4 in the morning and went to bed a little confused as to why our Kazakh drinking buddies were so keen to set us up with a 'nice Kazakh girl?!'
All became apparent the next morning when we met the other team after breakfast and Frank explained that one of the lads was in fact a Kazakh pimp! Now neither of us has met many pimps especially from Kazakhstan but this guy must be the friednliest and most generous pimp there is.
We're on the road again today unsure of how quick progress will be on the Kazakh roads. One of our wing mirrors has now fallen off, the engine cover has broken and we also finally parted ways with our the exhaust yesterday!We'll fill you in on what the rest of Kazakhstan is like in the next few days.
We're sorry to say that a member of another team died last friday in a serious road accident. No other details have been released but the news brought home how dangerous the adventure is and since the news we have been extra cautious on the roads.
Sorry... We tried but spectacularly failed in being brief but we could hardly leave out the beers with the pimp now could we?!
Qosh sau bolyngdar (That's goodbye!!!)
Astrakhan, Russian Federation
Taganrog, Russian Federation
Down but not out in Donetsk
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